Bryan Caplan  

The Myth of the Rational Voter Now in Paperback

Questions for Civil Libertaria... Fragmentation of States...

The paperback version of my book is now in stock at Amazon, for the low low price of $12.21. It's got a new introduction, including a reply to several prominent reviews. I think my favorite is my response to Daniel Casse's WSJ review:

Casse concludes that “Voter bias has fueled some foolish national debate in recent years but imposed very little foolish national policy.” In effect, he defends democracy by saying that the voice of the people falls on deaf ears.

The Myth of the Rational Voter explicitly states that democracies’ policies are better than you would expect given public opinion. But this does not imply that public opinion is unimportant. If voter bias has no effect on policy, why were extensive protectionist measures adopted in the first place? Why does protectionism remain after three decades of liberalization? The most convincing explanation is also the simplest: Politicians backed the original measures to win votes; their successors remain reluctant to liberalize because they are afraid they will lose votes.

Casse may be right that, in recent years, voter bias has imposed few new foolish policies (though the Iraq War is a strong counter-example). But this is misleading in two ways. First, very little new national economic policy of any kind has been imposed in recent years, because gridlock keeps the status quo in place. Second, and more importantly, Casse focuses on how policies have changed instead of what policies exist. A democracy should not be judged a success merely because it refrains from making bad policies worse – or makes a half-hearted effort to correct long-standing mistakes.

Many economists have a bad habit of crying "market failure" when markets fall short of perfection. But when I point out the shortcomings of democracy, the same economists often stonewall: "Democracy works well enough. Get over it." Do I detect the whiff of democratic fundamentalism?

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COMMENTS (2 to date)
Robert Book writes:


Perhaps the differing responses of these "many economists" stems from the fact that while many of them may believe that in the case of market failure a regulatory intervention might prove better -- but the evidence that non-democratic government is worse than democratic gove4rnment is too overwhelming for for anyone to credibly advocate any of the leading alternatives.

And since one of the leading alternatives in the past century has been Communism, this is a viewpoint for which I suspect you'll have some sympathy. ;-)


Mr. Econotarian writes:

Casse seems to concern himself most with the differences between the views of the voters (biased) and the policy results (less biased).

Not being a student of public choice theory, I'm not sure how it handles the issues of representative democracy, where politicians may be "less biased" than the people who vote for them (regardless of what they "promise" the people).

Casse says "for decades not a single presidential nominee from either party has run for office while waving the protectionist flag." Which is true on the face of things - politicians do generally say "trade is good" - however this is usually followed by "BUT..." as in "BUT we need environmental and labor standards (whatever that means)" etc. So they can look like they at once are free traders but still pander to the protectionist popular bias.

However I think this year has been more protectionist than others. Obama said "we have to eliminate tax breaks for companies that are moving overseas" , voted against CAFTA, etc. CATO has him as:

Barrier Votes: 36% (4 votes out of 11 opposing trade barriers)
Subsidy Votes: 0% (0 votes out of 2 opposing trade subsidies)

McCain on the other hand:

Barrier Votes: 88% (35 votes out of 40 opposing trade barriers)
Subsidy Votes: 80% (8 votes out of 10 opposing trade subsidies)
"Free Trader"

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